There’s a lot of talk about meditation being “the next big thing.” It’s practiced by more than 10 million Americans, and it graced the cover of Time magazine. By this point, most of us have gotten this: Meditation is good for you!
But it’s so slow, so difficult, so “traditional.”
What is it about something as simple as sitting still and watching our breath that evokes panic, fear, and even hostility? No matter how many reports and research there are proving the mental, emotional, and physical value of being quiet, there seems to be an even greater number who refuse to give it a try or give up at the earliest.
I believe, for many people like me, hearing the word of meditation fills us with a sense of boredom. The word reminds us of sincere couples sitting cross-legged on the floor of a Buddhist monastery, of calm, well-travelled middle-class people who have a bookshelf full of profound volumes on the subject. These people give off a sense of calm that can come across as a bit staid.
Even when we know intellectually that meditation is good for us and we want to keep doing it, we get that irresistible urge to do something, ANYTHING other than sitting there.
Meditation can certainly be challenging, and even more so if we are uncertain as to why we are doing it. It can seem very odd to sit there just listening to the incessant chatter in our head, and we easily get bored if we do nothing for too long, even if it’s only 10 minutes.
But meditation is really simple and amazing. What if meditation could be exciting, even thrilling… like surfing Mavericks? What if, instead of dimming the lights, closing your eyes, and fighting off the urge to nap, meditation was a matter of pushing off and sticking your paddle into surging rapids?
After years of hearing a plethora of reasons why people find it hard to meditate, I have whittled it down to just a few:
I’m too busy, I don’t have the time. At first, meditations of 10 minutes or less sounded a lot like fast food—quick and easy but devoid of any real nutritional benefit. However, as I’ve since learned, not only are mini-meditations a good idea for busy people who could use an extra hour in their day, but in the Tibetan Buddhist Mahamudra tradition there’s actual “encouragement to engage in short practice periods, many times during the day, rather than longer periods,” says Elizabeth Reninger. This little time helps you by breaking your normal cycle of thinking and it can also boost focus, creativity, and productivity.
I find it really uncomfortable to sit still for too long. If you are trying to sit cross-legged on the floor then, yes, it will get uncomfortable. But you can sit upright in a firm and comfortable chair instead. Or, you can do walking meditation, or yoga, or tai chi. Moving meditation can be just as beneficial as sitting.
There are too many distractions, it’s too noisy. Trying to fight the noise is unlikely to work. The noise is not going to go away because you don’t like it. If you respond aggressively to it then you’re just getting yourself into a fight that you cannot win. Just embrace the noise.
Rather than being an annoyance or distraction, any sounds that are present become an opportunity to be mindful. Let remain open and curious about the sounds. Let go of any thoughts that arise, in favor of paying attention to the sounds themselves. I can’t stop sounds, or make them change, or turn down the volume, so I simply accept them. I let them pass through the space of my awareness (which is the same thing as the space around me) without thinking about whether I like or don’t like them.
I don’t see the benefit. Unfortunately, this is where you have to take our word for it. Some people get how beneficial meditation is after just one session, but most of us take longer – you might notice a difference after a week, or maybe two of daily practice. Which means you have to trust the process enough to hang in there and keep going, even before you get the benefits.
Remember, music needs to be played for hours to get the notes right, while in Japan it can take 12 years to learn how to arrange flowers. Being still happens in a moment, but it may take some time before that moment comes—hence the need for patience.
I’m no good at this; I never get it right. Actually, it’s impossible to fail at meditation. There is no right or wrong, and there’s no special technique.
It’s all just weird New Age hype. It’s certainly easy to get lost in the array of New Age promises of eternal happiness but meditation itself is as old as the hills. More than 2,500 years ago the Buddha was a dedicated meditator who tried and tested numerous different ways of enabling the mind to be quiet. And that’s just one example. Each religion has its own variation on the theme, and all stretch back over the centuries. So nothing new here, and nothing weird.
Take a moment to find a comfortable place at your desk, on your sofa, or wherever you might be reading this, and allow that most obvious and most powerful vehicle, your breath, to awaken.
We take more than 20,000 breaths in a 24-hour period, and many days go by without paying attention to the sound of a single breath. Watch how something so simple is so deeply soothing to the mind: On the inhale, feel strength. On the exhale, let go.
As you breathe, each thought that comes up in your mind, each thing you have to get done today, each bill you need to pay on time, each email you are remembering that you did not reply to These are all rocks in the river… These rocks, these thoughts, cause the river to grow, to quicken, to rise. This is a far cry from the meditation of still lakes and calm skies. This is your reality, and your reality is intense!
The choice is yours: To let these distractions pull you out of the raft and into the river (a feeling we call anxiety or stress), or to stick your paddle in, keep breathing, and say YES!
If you made it this far, I want to thank you for reading my words. You clearly have an interest in meditation and I honestly believe it is one of most beautiful gifts we can give ourselves and others. Here some tools to help you on this journey: